Nicholas Hytner: Noises off

In the first of a new series written by leading figures in the arts world, the director of the National Theatre argues there has never been a better time to win over hearts and minds

Share
Related Topics

A revolution in government thinking about the arts has left its practitioners in an unfamiliar position. Suddenly we find ourselves almost buried under an avalanche of government policies, position papers and reports, all telling us how big a contribution we have to make to the new century. Even the Tories have become enthusiasts, their arts team vociferously supportive of a flourishing cultural life, the shadow Chancellor a regular theatre-goer, and their leader (unlike at least one of his predecessors) giving no sign of being ideologically opposed to everything except The Phantom of the Opera.

Most inspiring has been the almost universal acceptance that there is intrinsic value to the performing arts and to the overwhelmingly popular network of galleries and museums across the country. The Department for Culture has explicitly abandoned its emphasis on targets; and through the review by Sir Brian McMaster ("Supporting Excellence in the Arts") it has signalled that its chief concern is with the profound fulfilment that awaits anyone or any society that engages wholeheartedly with its artists.

This is more than merely a relief to someone like me who runs a theatre. I am here to put on great shows – shows that move people, shows that enlighten them about the world they live in and the world inside themselves, shows that bring them together in communal recognition of the tragic, the enraging, the hilarious and the transcendent, shows that people want to see and shows that we think they should see.

Of course the proposition that we are here to produce art as good as we're able prompts all sorts of questions. Who says what's good? Who is it for? Are we funding the artist or the audience? How much do we value tradition, and how much do we experiment? The list is endless, but the trick is always to return to the original proposition; and the Government's (and Opposition's) embrace of good art as something good in itself will have wonderfully liberating consequences.

We are unequivocally enthusiastic about the Children's Minister Ed Balls's commitment to offer every child five hours of arts and culture every week. There isn't an arts organisation in the country that doesn't have a vigorous education department, and the more support we have from the schools, the more culturally enfranchised new generations of schoolchildren will be. Our experience is that as soon as you open the door to art that is difficult and fulfilling, the demand for it is limitless.

Our commitment to the education of the young is long-standing. More recently, we have become aware of a powerful hunger among our adult audience for a deeper and wider experience. I was fascinated to read a recent speech by John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, in which he talked about a "quiet revolution in informal learning". While Ed Balls has recognised that "participating in cultural activities can have a huge impact on a child's development", John Denham has talked about "meeting the basic human desire for intellectual stimulation and enlightenment". Adult education, he thinks, is about more then enabling people to develop the skills and qualifications necessary to get better jobs: "It's about adults building social bonds, by sharing their interests and passions."

We've been more or less full at the National Theatre for the last few years, but we've noticed that there is a limitless appetite for more than just the show: for pre-performance lectures, question-and-answer sessions, and opportunities for the audience and artists to engage with each other. Not so long ago, you visited a museum to gaze in awe. The aesthetic experience was sufficient unto itself. Nowadays the audio-guide is standard and the great exhibitions serve as much as detailed and visceral introductions to strange worlds as they do as displays of beautiful objects. No one leaves the First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum feeling merely that they have seen wonderful things.

The audio-guide might stand as a metaphor for what the performing arts could do. So might DVD extras. It's time now to create new ways for audiences of all ages to participate and to understand more. Digital technology gives us tremendous opportunities to enable the communication of complex and difficult ideas and to build bridges between artist and audience. A performance of challenging new work or of work rooted in specific historical circumstances can be made transparent by creative use of the internet.

At the same time, we can respond to the growing desire of our audiences to join in. Theatre crafts are fascinating both to those who love the theatre and to those who are daunted by it. The National Theatre's education department has been approached recently by physics teachers interested in the technical side of what we do. There's as much magic in scene-painting, costume-making and stage lighting as there is in acting, singing and dancing.

We have arrived at a place where the performance of great art can go hand in hand with deepening our audience's experience of it, explaining how we make it and why we do it, and letting them join in with it. It's a good place to be.

Do you have an issue you wish to raise in Noises Off? Contact us at: sundayletters@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?